The song for this entry is "Between the End and Where We Lie," by Thrice. Lyrics are included with the YouTube video. This is long, but excluding the Author's Note, it's under 5,000. Author’s Note: This story is rated PG-13. Though it has been cleared for posting, anyone who may experience difficulty with scenes involving sexual assault—though portrayed in an oblique manner—should reconsider now. This will be your only warning. “Exits in the Haze” takes place in the Catacombs of Oralius universe seen in my previous challenge stories, “Sacrifice” and “Captives’ Ransom.” This story occurs 18 years prior to “Sacrifice,” almost 19 years before "Captives' Ransom.” In this universe, the Bajorans, under the influence of the Pah-Wraiths, have violently occupied their neighbors of a rivaling faith…the Cardassians, believers in the Oralian Way. A prominent Cardassian rebel has been imprisoned on Bajor by a vedek of the “True Prophets,” and subjected to an awful degradation. But in the end, it all comes down to the choices you make… Star Trek: Sigils and Unions Catacombs of Oralius--"Exits in the Haze" 10 Hedorăk, Twelfth Year of the 371st Ăstraya [Federation Year: 2361] The window offered only the faintest light, but he would make do as he had every other night when he snuck in here to hold his infant child. His eyes reflected the stars with the faint silver glow typical of Cardassians if you looked closely enough: unlike Bajorans and humans, his species still had not lost the last vestiges of a tapetum lucidum behind the retina. What little light there was grew brighter, movement more focused, and basic forms much clearer, but such night vision came with a cost: this process of reflection within the eye blurred the details—an effect overcome by the brain during the day, but not so at night. He could barely make out her features, but every glimpse he got of her still knocked the breath right out of him—and what he couldn’t see, he made up by touch. He’d run a gentle finger along the outside of her eye ridge that first time he held her, just like any other Cardassian parent did when they got done counting their infant’s fingers and toes for the first time. He felt it in his bones, right down to the depths of his soul: She was his child, from the beginning of time to the end. The wrinkles across the bridge of her nose didn’t matter…in fact, he had to admit they were kind of cute when she screwed up her face into that full-force stretch-and-yawn tiny babies were so good at. He wasn’t supposed to be in here. She’d made that most clear even before explicitly telling him so. MY child, not yours, had been the message she’d sent from the moment she’d given the newborn that name he couldn’t pronounce: Fithani, which came out with a hiss on those rare occasions when he tried to say it…Vissaniy. She’d done it on purpose, he was sure. The devil-vedek’s eyes gleamed with a laughter far from kind whenever he tried…a disturbing mixture of amusement and contempt: tendrils of that awful memory running from her into him. “Ziyal,” he whispered under his breath as he did every time he held her. “Veçok çadou Ziyal.” Had she smiled that time? Was she learning to recognize those alien syllables as her real name? “I named you Ziyal Dukat, because you are the light by which Oralius gives me a future.” The name Ziyal came from the same root as the Cardăsda word for ‘future’—zay’oul. And in his soul, she was just that: his reason to keep afloat above the ocean waves of shame and sorrow, the reason he hadn’t tried again to end his life after Vedek Tora had found him a week to the day, standing with arms outspread, back to the street below, ready to hurl himself over the edge to a swift end below. It had been over half a year since the start of his captivity on this freezing forest world—seven months of her holding him in this palatial prison, trotting him out for various public appearances…the tall Cardassian heathen made tame…and his daughter, too, starting only a week after her birth. And no surprise…there’d been nowhere near enough blankets to shield her from the cold. What if she’d taken ill and died just because Vedek Tora felt like pretending the girl only looked part-Cardassian? His daughter wriggled in his arms now and voicelessly he shushed her lest she give them both away. The vedek believed the girl had started sleeping through the night early in life the way her people’s children did…she had no idea that the only reason her nights were untroubled was because he made it so. He was the one who cared enough to sneak in here after the one who bore her was asleep and cradle his child in his arms until she was warm enough to be laid in her crib. He doubted Vedek Tora even knew or cared what a hybrid child like Ziyal might require. It was all about that dark prophecy to her: first tie the ‘savage’ world to that of its ‘saviors,’ then once they’d been made to see the ‘True Prophets’’ light, usher in the Restoration. The consort, the child…these were just the trappings of power she needed to secure her eventual place as the Pah-Wraiths’ Kai. Others had tried…but no others had succeeded in capturing a leader of the Resistance, the sort of man described by the demons. She still hadn’t broken him completely…praise be to Oralius, he still hadn’t divulged a single source or method, and considering—that was nothing short of a divine miracle. Your name and occupation, Cardassian! I told you—I am Tenos An’Shoul! I’m a Culatda farmer. And I don’t know why the hell you’ve dragged me all the way to Bajor…they were hungry and I took pity on them. All I did was feed them…I didn’t know they were rebels! You’ve done a whole lot more than that, “Mr. An’Shoul”! I saw you in a vision—and do you know what name the True Prophets called you by? They called you Skrain Dukat; they were very adamant on that. They know you quite well. It’s Tenos An’Shoul! And if your Pah-Wraiths know me, then they’d know how much I despise them! Quite the contrary, Dukat. An’Shoul! Whatever. They seem to think you have potential. As do we all. We all have the potential to cast our souls to the tundra; but just the same, we all have a choice in our actions. I made my choice long ago, and you cannot sway me. Do we really? Those are bold words for a farmer…you speak like someone who’s much too used to proclaiming his message. Drop the innocent act, Mr. Dukat—we both know who you are. And so do the True Prophets. And bold words they had been. Before his capture, he’d been filled with fire, fueled by the courage of one successful raid after another. There was nothing he couldn’t do, or so it had felt…Akellen had warned him the night before the raid on Culat University—brainwashing center, more like—that his proposed plan was too bold, that he should at least take the Glinn with him. But no, in his pride he’d insisted on going it alone. And look at where it got me. Even when they’d first shoved him in the shuttle, blinded by neural blockers, he hadn’t stopped scheming, hadn’t stopped believing he could turn this unfortunate twist of fate upon his captors and come blasting off Bajor in a triumphant blaze—leaving, of course, an awe-inspiring swath of destruction behind him. No more. Ah, what did I do when I challenged her so? part of him still lamented. Such was lunacy, he knew: illogical in the stonehearted words of Vulcan’s Surak. So too in the consoling poetry of his own people’s Guides. He knew that. He’d told the same thing to the wives, mothers, and daughters of the Resistance, time and time again. He’d been so sure. He’d been so sure. The base of Dukat’s left ear ridge ached where she’d had it pierced it the day she first dragged him out of his room to present the child to her adoring public. The wound had healed cleanly enough considering the vedek’s ‘doctor’ had stabbed a heated needle straight through the cartilage. Maybe the needle had struck a nerve…there was no telling. All he knew was that despite all lack of outward indications, very frequently—especially when he caught a moment alone at night—it still hurt like the very first day. He drew in a breath and focused…it wouldn’t do to pull Ziyal too tight to his chest, no matter what the pain. Defiance flared deep within his breast. The vedek could pierce his ear, pierce his soul, take all she could take, but she could not claim him. No—he had passed that test, and nothing…nothing could steal that away. She brought out a carved display case, doors hiding the contents from the eyes for the moment—but he could feel it, a brooding malevolence from the thing. Do you know what this is, Dukat? A fancy kănar-cooler, he’d snapped, full of spiteful sarcasm. She drew her arm back to slap him across the face; he barely felt it when she made contact. What, you think I haven’t heard? This, heretic, is the instrument of your salvation: an Orb of the True Prophets. Before he could look away, she ripped open the doors. Inside the red crystalline light maliciously welled. A tendril of light curled towards him like a beckoning finger and from somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, every dark urge he’d ever had resurfaced and cavorted in silent symphony as the unholy thing began pulsing to the rhythm of his heart. It knew him, yes…knew every darkest corner of his soul. And the visions it vomited forth were revolting beyond compare. Part of him no longer knelt shackled in that Ashalla hallway. He saw a dozen distorted visages, every last one of them his, every last one of them wreathed in flame. Then time cycled back and he saw where they had began. He watched the incantations, the unholy words spilling from his own mouth in echoed images, one after the other. He beheld the fear, the wrath, and above all the consuming pride, and he knew this as the twisted wreckage of his own soul… Every last one of them danced in flame except for him. Though red tendrils snaked out from the Ark and around and round his body, though voices called and instincts beckoned, they could not touch him. And he understood why: these shadow-souls, these wretched ice-wraiths, had chosen it. The devil’s relic seized his heart, seized his lungs—he could not speak the words he needed, but he could will them nonetheless: The power that moves through me, animates my life, animates the mask of Oralius: to speak her words with my voice, to think her thoughts with my mind, to feel her love with my heart—it is the song of morning, opening up to life, bringing truth of her wisdom to those who live in the shadow of the night. Something blazed cerulean like a wind of flame amidst the ruby red. It took the form of a shield and he knew…it was time to defy. It is this selfsame power turned against creation, turned against my friend, that can destroy his body with my hand, reduce his spirit with my hate, separate his presence from my home: to live without Oralius lighting our way to the source, connecting us to the mystery, is to live without the tendrils of love. And that way—your way—is the way of annihilation. I will not follow where you lead! He would never know just how much of it she saw, just how much she understood. But the evil Orb flared once more and died before him: inert rock cowered before the shackled, kneeling figure.